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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

Heart elevate "Alone" with their cover by understanding its message

Yes, it's a cover, and yes, they made a couple small changes that really make their version superior to its predecessors.

I swear my life isn't that sad — I guess I just happen to like tracks that talk about loneliness in one way or another.

On Monday, I wrote one of my favorite pieces yet on Calvin Harris' house classic "I'm Not Alone." Take just the last word from Harris' title, and you'll get the name of the song I'm examining tonight: "Alone." I was very much in an 80s mood today, and my mind kept returning to Heart's version of the song — which topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1987 — likely because we discussed it in the latter half of my class on popular music theory. I'm not a huge power ballad guy, but there are a few of which I'm particularly fond, and "Alone" is certainly one of them.

I had only ever heard of Heart's version before researching the song a bit for that class, but I then found out Ann and Nancy Wilson and company were the third artists to record the song. Songwriting duo Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly first recorded "Alone" under the name i-Ten in 1983, before Valerie Stevenson and John Stamos recorded it for the soundtrack of CBS' sitcom Dreams the next year. In listening to those early versions, I notice much of what I enjoy about Heart's version: the tune is largely the same, with most of the changes coming in the timbre of the instruments and the singers. However, I remain steadfast in my liking of Heart's recording more because of those qualities and more, which is why it will be my focus today.

Even if you don't know anything about "Alone," you can probably tell it's from the 80s within its opening seconds, all because of Nancy Wilson's keyboard work. The tone is somewhere between a standard piano and the iconic Yamaha DX7 synthesizer that defined the decade. I used to really not like that sound, but I've recently learned to appreciate it — not only for the number of 80s hits on which it's present, but also for the character it brings to those songs. The tone has a strong high end, but it also lacks much of a midrange, leading the synth to sound hollow. Hollowness is a perfect sentiment to capture in the verses of power ballads, when singers so often yearn for love and/or lament the absence of love in their life, as Ann Wilson does on "Alone."

There's a level of predictability to the switch from the minor key of the verse (B-flat minor) to the relative major (D-flat Major) at the end of the pre-chorus ("I hope that it won't end, though / Alone"), as the viewpoint becomes more optimistic. However, the song doesn't stay in that relative major, instead moving to a different major key a full step lower (B Major) for the chorus. This key change is really interesting to me, because it does still feel brighter than what came before it in some ways — likely because of the first chord of E-flat minor being higher than the D-flat Major which preceded it — but that brightness feels very short-lived in the context of the rest of the chorus. I think the key change fits the lyrical tone, as Ann Wilson sings not of actually getting the person alone, but rather of wondering how it's possible to do so. Not finding the answers to that question can definitely lead to an internal darkness as one wonders if the opportunity for long-awaited love has passed them by... and it's suggested by the final return to the minor key at the song's end that the narrator is still searching for a solution.

The chorus and the ending also display Heart and their producers' artistry and curation of "Alone" through two small, but impactful alterations they made to Steinberg and Kelly's original song. Firstly, Ann Wilson changed the first line of the chorus from "I always fared well on my own," starting on the third upbeat, to "Til now, I always got by on my own," starting on the second beat. Ann's version is far more dramatic and attention-grabbing, introducing the two highest notes she sings throughout the songs as well as launching into the chorus with far more energy than on the first two versions, which in hindsight feel like they're missing something where Ann sings "Til now."

Secondly, rather than returning to the song's opening lines after the extended last chorus, Heart simply end their version instrumentally. I find this ending to be more satisfying even though it doesn't bring the song full circle like, because it leaves the last line at "How do I get you alone?" The lack of vocals implies the narrator's deep contemplation of what do do next, and the track ends without a clear answer... a feeling I think really fits the story it tells.

Heart's version of "Alone" gives the original song a fitting instrumental treatment, while also tweaking it just enough to make it feel much more compelling. The Wilson sisters may not have written the song, but in my view they certainly elevated it to its greatest form, one which I can't help but sing along to even in my ambivalence about power ballads.


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